Review: The Much-Lamented Death Of Madam Geneva By Patrick Dillon Essay, Research Paper
Distil my beating heart The Much-Lamented Death of Madam Geneva: The 18th-century Gin Craze Patrick Dillon 354pp Review To establish a personal connection with the 18th-century gin trade, you have only to look at the label of your own supply: Beefeater, Booth, Gordon, Tanqueray. All descend from the first companies of distillers who, having grown very rich on gin, understandably and on the whole successfully resisted attempts to limit its consumption. Distilling had its origin in alchemy. Eventually it was discovered that you could add flavours to the raw spirit and make it drinkable. Its early use was primarily medicinal, but from about the time of the Restoration one drank it for fun, if that is the word. The English had acquired a Dutch king who encouraged the recreational use of gin as distilled, from 1572 on, by his compatriot Bols. Compounding the spirit with, say, juniper berries (or aniseed, though that later became very un-English) provided a beverage desirable in itself and also an economic benefit, since it was distilled from the produce of native agriculture rather than from the grape. Later the government enthusiastically supported English farmers by banning the import of brandy, but smuggling made it available to those who could afford it – which was one reason gin was the drink of the poor and brandy that of the rich. Patrick Dillon has researched the history of the 18th-century gin craze in admirable detail. His material is serious history but his manner is rather slangy, and his tedious insistence on personifying gin as Madam Geneva is enough to drive one to drink. At the height of the craze London, in any case not a salubrious city, was full of back-street dram shops and pedlars selling pennyworths. Illicit stills competed with the big distillers – in 1726 there were 1,500 stills in London and 6,287 places where gin was sold, much of it adulterated with turpentine, alum and sulphuric acid. You could even leave out the juniper juice, because among the desperate (congregated mostly in Holborn and St Giles), raw hooch was perfectly acceptable, though many died of it. It was the opium of the people before opium itself took on that role in the next century. It was forced on babies. Women took to it and drunken women were thought especially disgusting. Workmen sold the tools of their trade for gin. Crime and suicide rates increased, and the birthrate fell. In the end the government, though anxious about the effect on the tax receipts, had to do something about “the infection of gin drinking”. It required premises to be licensed, and taxed the retailers (but not the big distillers) ferociously. Large fines disappeared into the pockets of magistrates. Bodies such as the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge employed large numbers of informers, who by 1725 had achieved about 9,000 prosecutions. The populace deplored their trade and beat them up as and when they could, but the racket continued, run by bosses who sat safely back and took their cut. In the end, the opposition succeeded in persuading a reluctant government to ban the sale of gin altogether, and seven years of prohibition followed. They were marked by riots, some fomented by Jacobite dissidents, and by the growth of organised crime and bootlegging. Consumption of gin rose by a third during those seven years. Before it ended, prohibition had become an acute political issue. And when gin became legal again, it was at last made expensive by heavy taxes on the primary distillers. This was not the only reason why the gin craze came to an end and the liquor moved up the social scale. It occurred to some advanced thinkers that the repressive energies of the government and the law were being wrongly applied. “If we would really prevent such intolerable disorders,” argued the London Evening Post , “we should, like skilful physicians, remove the cause of them and not vainly fight against the effects”: that is, be tough not only on drinking but on the causes of drinking, mainly the poverty and misery of the slums. After 1751 the craze began to die away, partly because of a succession of failed harvests when no grain could be spared for distilling, partly as a result of the evangelical efforts of Wesley and others, and partly because of a novel idea that a more humane attitude to the poor would pay off. Gin didn’t disappear altogether; witness the vast Victorian gin palaces, still open in the years before the second world war. But it was no longer a craze, an epidemic of addiction. Moreover, London had become less of a squalid dust-heap and more of a proud capital – less ostentatiously a scene of crime and misery. Dillon does not ignore historical comparisons, and adds an epilogue about the Prohibition era in America, which affords interesting if inexact paralells to the 18th-century phenomenon. He ends with some sage remarks about drugs in our own time, when once again the chief instruments of control are entirely repressive. But his main interest is that extraordinary period he describes as having a culture of risk. The word “risk” seems to have come into English about the time of the Restoration (if Shakespeare had known it, he would very likely have used it in The Merchant of Venice ). Its introduction coincided with a craze for speculation, as in the South Sea Bubble, and with addictive gambling in newly founded clubs like White’s and Brook’s. Dillon associates these risk crazes with the gin craze, and we need no Hogarth to tell us that when you entered a dram shop, or bought gin at a street stall or from a woman who furtively produced drams from under her skirts, you were taking a risk – though whether all these risks were interrelated, as Dillon suggests, may be disputed. One thing he is clear about: from the top down – that is, from Prime Minister Walpole down to the excise men and the magistrates – this was a culture of corruption. A huge public problem became the occasion for political manoeuvring. And the law was ruthless, filling the prisons and the Bridewell, imposing ruinous fines and allowing its agents to take the profits. It is an odd thought, but on the whole we nowadays do seem to manage such matters a little, if not much, better.